We’ve all heard of Markus Zusak, right? The Australian author of the runaway best-selling book of 2005, The Book Thief. It’s won numerous awards, been translated into multiple languages and made into a feature film. His new book, The Bridge of Clay, was published in October 2018, amid high anticipation. So the author would be well entitled to consider himself as having ‘made it’ in the world of publishing, surely?
I was listening to a podcast today (Writes4Women) recorded at a fundraiser for the inaugural 2019 StoryFest Festival to be held in Milton, on the beautiful South Coast of NSW. Markus Zusak was the guest speaker at this event and the talk was recorded for the podcast. You can listen to it here:
Some of what Markus Zusak says in this talk came as a bit of a surprise to me. For example, the author says:
I don’t think of writing (for me, anyway) as an art form. I’m a tradesman and I go to work and I just keep chipping away, waiting for the moment to come…but it won’t come unless you’re there, doing the work. The biggest effort can be just getting to the desk, and making that commitment and being prepared to fail. It’s a trade that you’re always working on and trying to get right…I can love the effort even if I don’t always love the result. Markus Zusak
These words are balm to the soul of anyone having more of the “I can’t believe I wrote this mess!” days than the “Wow, look at what I wrote!” ones. Just turn up. Keep plugging away. Commit. Learn to do it better. And then do it all again, on the next draft, and the next…
It doesn’t have to perfect or even very good. Be proud, still, of the effort and the improvements you make.
And actually I think this can apply to any endeavour in life. Art, music, writing, gardening, a profession, a job.
As Markus Zusak says, “Love the effort.”
My ‘Australian Writers’ Centre’ Furious Fiction entry for February. The parameters for that month were: 500 words or less; the first sentence must have three words only; there had to be a candle; and a “first” of some sort in the story.
Here’s my effort:
THREE by Denise Newton
“Three, three, three!” Lily punctuated each word with a clap. She skipped around the room, her pink tulle skirt fanning out around chubby knees.
The chant was becoming annoying. Sandra tried to breathe through her irritation. Like in yoga: breathe… in…and… out. Mustering patience. Birthdays were thrilling when you were turning three. When had she stopped being excited by them? She couldn’t remember. She put the third candle on top of the pink icing and placed the tiny ballerina in the centre of the cake.
“There, what do you think?”
Lily executed a clumsy pirouette, hands fluttering. “Beautiful, Mummy!”
Sandra started to say, “Let’s show Daddy…” but stopped, bit back the words in time. That familiar swooping inside. Like on a scary ride at the funfair, without the fun. This was another of those hideous “firsts” that had to be endured for a year. An entire, damnable year. And then another, and another, and another…
She glanced at her mother, seated at the table. Eleanor was watching her granddaughter dance her excitement across the kitchen. There was a fond smile on her lips and a tiny furrow between her brows. Sandra arranged her own face into a matching smile.
Her mother wasn’t fooled. “All right, love?” she said.
Sandra nodded. Her smile widened, cracked, dissolved. The tears came.
“Damn!” She tried hard to swallow them, force them away. They were disobedient, not to be stopped. They tickled as they ran down past her nose. She wiped her cheek with the back of one hand, furious with herself.
“It’s to be expected, you know.” Her mother’s voice was soft. “Times like this, birthdays and anniversaries. They’ll be hard for a while.”
Sandra gave a small sigh. “I suppose so.” She looked at Lily, who was still twirling. “You’ll make yourself dizzy, Lil.”
Lily stopped mid-turn, breathless, laughing up at her. “It’s fun!”
“It looks fun.” Sandra attempted another smile. “Come on, help me make the fairy bread. Everyone’ll be here soon.”
Together they buttered bread. Lily hummed as she shook the ‘hundreds and thousands’ container, sprinkling the tiny coloured pebbles over each slice. Every now and then a rush of them spilled out, forming a little kaleidoscopic mound, stuck to the butter. Lily squeaked in delight each time. Sandra cut the fairy bread into triangles and arranged them on a plate.
The smell of the fresh, buttered bread, the sugar in the toppings, the cake…The scene transported her to when she was a small girl, helping her mother prepare for a birthday party. The fizzy excitement. It was all so real.
She looked at Lily, giving her a proper smile this time.
“Come on, Lil. Let’s put up the balloons.”
As she passed the kitchen dresser, she touched the photo of Dan in its frame, and knew they’d be OK
Back in January I gave an update marking the halfway point of the ‘Write Your Novel’ program I’ve been working through, with the Australian Writers’ Centre.
This week my classmates and I have to submit our full manuscript for workshopping in small groups. So, we each submit our manuscript, and we have a month to read and comment on manuscripts submitted by two to three of our classmates.
A few minutes ago I clicked the ‘Submit’ button. How did it feel?
Scary – no one has as yet read my full draft. Will they like it? Hate it? Feel indifferent?
Exciting – the workshopping and feedback process in this program has been so useful to date. I just know I’ll get back comments that will help me make my story stronger.
There’s also a sense of responsibility to my classmates: to provide honest, worthwhile feedback to assist them in the way I hope to be helped along by them.
The feedback I’ve received on this program has been very worthwhile and certainly helped me to improve my writing.
As our online tutor, Cathie Tasker, has said:
It’s the arrogant authors who don’t make it.
Find the Australian Writers’ Centre programs here:
You know the story is working when the story is leading you, rather than you leading the story. Arnold Zable, author.
In a previous post I wrote about enjoyment I’ve had with the research process. (It’s on my ‘Books and Projects’ page if you’d like to see it.)
One of the surprising pleasures of writing for me has been the process of discovery. I’ve had a general idea of my characters, major events in their lives, and where they end up (some of these dictated by the historical records, as my major characters are based on real life people from the 1800’s)
Within those broad parameters, it’s been astonishing, and great fun, to sit at my keyboard and have ideas just develop, as if from nowhere. I’ve heard some writers say their characters ‘tell them’ what they’ll do and say. I’m not sure that applies to me, but I have to say there have been times when, after writing for an hour or so, I have to admit ‘I didn’t know that was going to happen!’
As a new writer it’s easy to either get anxious about this, or get carried away by it. Overall I prefer to stick to my general plan, but it’s fun to allow a bit of leeway and explore roads and lane ways that open up unexpectedly. It doesn’t mean that all of these make it past the first draft, of course. But it’s fun, certainly.
I think I ‘m coming to see the writing process as more like consulting a map. I know where I’m starting, and where I want to get to. In between, I can take the most obvious route, but I can also take interesting little detours or twists and see what comes of them. Being open to the possibilities is the thing.
Kind of like life, don’t you think?
ZAHRA by Denise Newton
“Ma’am, would you please step to one side?” The official was polite but firm. There was no option: Zahra obeyed his directive. She adjusted her headscarf with her free hand. It trembled a little. She tried to hide the hand under a fold in her long jacket. Everything about her – her clothes and her spirit -had become a little creased on the flight from Kabul. She was very tired.
The official led her behind the bustling immigration area to an interview room. It was quiet inside. Zahra saw four chairs and a desk. There was a large round clock above the desk. The other walls were all white: blank white walls. Another official, dressed in the same uniform as the first, sat on one of the chairs. She indicated that Zahra should sit on the chair facing her. Zahra did so, slipping her hands – both of them shaking now – inside her sleeves. She would not show these people her fear.
The second official had Zahra’s passport. She leafed through the pages, glancing up once or twice. After several long moments she said, “What is the purpose of your visit to Australia?”
Zahra replied, carefully as she’d rehearsed “To visit my son. He is very sick.”
“And where does he live?”
“He lives in an apartment in Bankstown.”
“How long do you plan to stay?”
“Just one month.” Zahra’s mouth was dry. It was hard to pronounce the English words properly. She must say everything properly. For Hanif’s sake. For her son.
“Is your son an Australian citizen?” It was the man this time. He’d come to sit near Zahra. He was too close to her. His knee was touching her thigh. She tried to move back a little in her chair. She wanted to spring to her feet, to run outside and away from these people in the uniforms. But that would mean she would not see Hanif. She had to see Hanif. So she breathed out slowly and answered the man: “No, he is not citizen. He has temporary visa.”
“How can we be sure that you will return to Afghanistan at the end of the month? That you won’t try to stay here?” The man was frowning at her now. He frightened her. Did he mean to be frightening? Zahra didn’t know.
“I leave in one month. I see my son, then I leave. I want to nurse my son. He may die…he is sick. Very sick.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs.Asadi.” The woman stood up .”We cannot verify your visa documentation. We cannot allow you to enter Australia until this is done. You will need to stay in a detention centre until we have checked your credentials.”
The man took her arm to lead her from the room. Zahra turned her head to look at his face, searching for some understanding or compassion. The man had stopped frowning. His face was blank: it was empty.
As I work on re-drafting and editing my first draft, I am more conscious of the fear evoked by the thought of eventually putting my work out into the world. I know it’s common to writers, artists and others who work in creative pursuits. I suppose because when we write, compose music, or paint, we put a fair chunk of ourselves into whatever we are creating. It’s natural to be tentative about inviting a response from others.
In response to that fear, I’m working on making my story the best it can be. And when I’m satisfied I’ve taken it as far as I can on my own,that’s when I’ll invite others to read my work and give me feedback and suggestions. Yikes!
In the meantime, I can take baby steps in other ways. Submitting short stories to competitions, for example. Reading little pieces at a writer’s group meeting. Posting blogs. It’s all part of the process of putting my writing (and therefore myself) out there. Small steps. One at a time, each building on the ones before.
I’m so excited about the magic date of 29th October .. it’s when the online version of the ‘Write Your Novel’ program with the Australian Writers Centre begins. I’ve signed up and I can’t wait to start!
My motivation is that I have a first draft of a first novel that needs work…and since completing that first draft, I’ve been feeling a little at sea with how to approach what needs doing. This program, suitable for those with a chunk of a first draft or a completed one, will be invaluable for me. To go step by step through a manuscript, working out structural issues, plot development, pacing, character and dialogue; with help from an experienced editor tutor and a group of classmates all doing the same thing – wow.
Here’s the link to the Australian Writers Centre website about the course if it is something that might interest you:
Blue Mountains writers are blessed with resources, people and places to help learn the craft. This year I’ve attended two excellent workshops offered by Blue Mountains Library Services, and facilitated by local best selling author Julian Leatherdale. There’s a third workshop coming up in November: anyone want to join me?
Mountains of Stories – Creative Writing Workshop at Springwood Library with Lisa Chaplin
Sat Nov 10th 10:00am – 3:00pm
Blue Mountains Theatre and Community Hub, 104 Macquarie Rd, Springwood NSW 2777, Australia
Lisa’s Workshop will cover how to create characters, bring them to life and how to keep them true to themselves as well as how to create a precise and professional pitch that encapsulates your book and helps you ‘sell’ it to publishers.